DVD Review: Dirty Harry (1971)

With Clint Eastwood’s birthday a few weeks ago, just about every movie he’s ever been a part of was re-released on DVD. The subsequent upgrade of my home theater to Blu-ray incited a need to relive some of these great films. Eastwood is arguably best known for his portrayal of the relentless cop with no tolerance for bullshit rules and red tape titularly known as “Dirty” Harry Calahan. This franchise seemed like as good of a place as any to start with some Eastwood magic.

The original Dirty Harry film is loosely based off of the Zodiac killer who terrorized San Francisco in the mid-60’s – the killer even identifies himself as Scorpio (one of the signs of the zodiac calendar). In fact, David Fincher’s film, Zodiac, even has a sequence in which his characters are at the movies watching Dirty Harry and they remark about the “rules” of the film within the film. A psycho is on the loose, killing indescriminantly while simultaneously taunting and bragging to the police and mayor’s office. In this fictitious version however, Scorpio is asking for money. While the mayor’s office scrambles to find the money to pay off this psycho, Calahan will none of it and sets off on an investigation of his own – hell-bent on capturing, or preferably killing, this maniac on the loose.

It’s been years since my last viewing of the original Dirty Harry film. As a kid it scared the bejeezus out of my fragile soul and this time around the film does its best to do the same. Though I’m older, desensitized and more mature, nevertheless the movie does a fantastic job of setting up an ominous mood when it needs to and the villain is just as I remember him – creepy, insane and worst of all utterly insane – thereby maintaining a very notable position in my top ten favorite villains of all time. The actor, Andrew Robinson, has an odd sounding voice, wide, bugging eyes and a strange mouth that articulates his menacing verbiage and maniacal laughs with shuddersome peculiarity.

Interestingly, the movie itself is only about 100 minutes, yet somehow really manages to take its time with the case and developing Calahan as someone more than just a cop with a gun. There are a few side plots involving unrelated bank heists, suicide attempts and street vigilantes. The story always weaves its way back to the central story line, but in between there is all manner of fun stuff to behold – “do you feel lucky? Well do ya punk!!?”

What makes this movie work and still hold up remarkably well today is its all-around style. Not only are there side tangents in the plot, but there’s a great sense of director Don Siegel really taking his time to show off and linger on the things that help encompass the mood. We don’t just see Harry Calahan answer a pay phone. Instead we see him running from a long distance to get there. It seems like five minutes go by as we wait for a little speck of nothingness on the dark horizon to slowly materialize as Calahan running towards the camera. We don’t just see Calahan enter a building and start talking to someone; we inexplicably have to watch him walk up about a hundred steps to get where he’s going. This is NOT a complaint. On the contrary, the longer we are able to look at and appreciate our surrounds, the easier we familiarize ourselves with the location and even have time to gather thoughts about what just took place or what is about to happen. This occurs alot throughout the film and not only is it there just to linger on great shots or put ourselves in the shoes of a character, but at times it also adds to the tension in the scene.

With regards to the music in the film, at times I swear Soderbergh was around to help collaborate with these decisions. In most of the scenes involving Scorpio, we get to watch his goings-on with just a funky drum kit beat pumping in the background. The occasional jazz flute or bass line may accompany, but for the most part it’s just a funky rhythm that paces itself depending on what is happening within the scene. In darker, more ominous scenes, the film might as well evolve into a pure ghost/horror film with some of the haunting vocals and ambient instrumentals that accompany the visuals. It’s seriously one of the coolest and most effective scores I’ve ever heard.

Dirty Harry, as iconic as it is, doesn’t get mentioned very often in discussion about great cinema; which is a shame. Because watching again after all these years and with much more in the way of a frame of reference, I see this picture as one of the best “cops and robbers” movies I’ve ever seen. The style and mood is what sells it, but the addition of great and (at the time) innovative characters solidifies this film as a must-see staple. Dirty Harry changed the landscape of American cop movies for the better and I look forward to checking out all of the sequels to the film over the coming days/weeks.


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Kurt Halfyard

I like the opening credits of Dirty Harry (http://www.artofthetitle.com/2009/10/12/dirty-har…). It's pretty awesome. Also, Don Seigel directed the original (very low budget) B-film INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, perhaps some have heard of it, one of the great 1950s science fiction paranoia/metaphor films. Even thought the 70's version is a better, film I still have a great big soft spot for Seigels version. Also Charlie Varrick and The Shootist are class.

David Brook

I'm loving the retro choices this week, dirty harry is another one of my all time favourites. I saw it on the beach in cannes 2 years ago with clint eastwood introducing it. It was probably my most memorable film experience ever! And yeah I love the original body snatchers, it's a shame the studio spoiled the ending though. If it ended when he's running down the road it would be perfect.